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UCLA puts its Chip on the table

After beating Cal on Friday night, UCLA hires Chip Kelly to become the next Bruins head coach on Saturday. Things are looking up in Westwood.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Chip Kelly returns to college after stints in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been quite the weekend for UCLA football.

On Friday, UCLA beat Cal 30-27 on a last-second JJ Molson field goal send the Bruins bowling at the expense of the second-best UC school. They did so without Josh Rosen for the second half after he was held out with concussion-like symptoms after taking big hits in the first half. It is somehow fitting and yet cruel to see Josh Rosen’s likely Rose Bowl finale end because his offensive line was unable to protect him from bone-crushing hits enough.

Devon Modster filled in admirably, completing 14 of 18 passes for 191 yards with no turnovers in what could have been an early audition to start next season. He kept the offense on schedule after Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olurunfunmi went down injured after already being thin at receiver. In particular, he threw some pretty deep passes to Jordan Lasley, who finished with 12 catches and 226 receiving yards in what might have been his last home game. If it was, Lasley could not have played any better if he tried.

Jedd Fisch got his first win as UCLA’s interim head coach. It was a great moment for a coach who did a great job overhauling UCLA’s offense this season and unleashing Josh Rosen’s true potential. He’ll get one more game at the helm as UCLA awaits its bowl game destination to be announced next week.

As great as it would be to have Fisch around next season Chip Kelly’s passing coordinator, Fisch should be a head coach in due time.

Speaking of Chip Kelly, the Bruins made his hire official on Saturday morning. The hire became official after UCLA beat Florida for his signature after the two fielded offers over the last week. Given the insanity that the coaching carousel usually brings about, it is rather remarkable that UCLA, of all places, was able to hone in on its top target, interview him and snap him up over a blue-blood program in the span of five days.

For UCLA fans, it is truly bizarro world to watch it move quickly and quietly without leaks to get the best available coach on the market.

It’s hard to state how much this changes the landscape nationally, in the Pac-12 and at UCLA specifically. UCLA can now legitimately claim it has one of the ten best coaches in college football and the best in the Pac-12 South. (Chris Petersen and David Shaw deserve plaudits in the North.) It’s also the first time in my lifetime that UCLA can make that legitimate claim about having a truly great coach.

Troy Aikman, who was instrumental in convincing Kelly to come to Westwood, summed it up best. The time for UCLA football to compete like it can is now.

Kelly is a truly innovative offensive mind, bringing the Blur offense to college football with Oregon as its offensive coordinator in 2007. He became the Ducks’ head coach in 2009, and in four seasons, he racked up 46 wins, 3 Pac-12 titles and was national runner-up in 2010. (Michael Dyer was down, by the way). He is also known for innovations in player development, such as nutrition, sleep habits and everything else off the field.

In short, Kelly summed up his vision in 3 facets at his introductory press conference on Monday: relationships, friendships and championships.

This is a slam dunk hire for UCLA, an anomaly for a football program that has vastly underachieved for a long time.

What can UCLA fans expect next season? That is a loaded question that will take the whole season to unpack.

Let’s start with the on-field product for today, particularly the offense. As Kelly fills out his staff and gets past the early signing day for recruits on December 20th, we’ll have a better idea of what the team will look like and how Kelly might scheme on defense before spring ball.

Kelly’s spread zone rushing attack ran riot over Pac-10 (and Pac-12 for two seasons) defenses by playing simple math: having equal or more than one blocker than defender. He accomplished that by stretching defenses wide with option runs and bubble screens and then hitting the gaps with zone reads and powers. Play-action passes were critical since they sucked in linebackers and safeties who loaded the box and then watched receivers run right past them. In contrast to what many might think, Kelly’s offenses were run-first operations that usually ran about 65% of the time and threw 35% of the time.

UCLA has a stable of good running backs, led by Soso Jamabo and Bolu Olurunfunmi. They are not quick burners like LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner or De’Anthony Thomas were at Oregon, but Jamabo is a force in the open field and Olurunfunmi is best when he cuts once and goes. Brandon Stephens filled in admirably on Saturday and is probably the fastest back on the team and figures to get run as well.

And we cannot dismiss the idea of cornerback Darnay Holmes playing some offense, too. He did it in high school, and his top-end speed is why he was entrusted as the starting kick returner this season. How fun would it be to see Holmes and Theo Howard catch bubble screens on the edge, make a guy miss, and then house it for a touchdown?

Having a rushing threat at quarterback was critical, too. Previously unheralded quarterbacks like Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli thrived because they were solid throwers who also changed the equation for defenses with their running ability. However, they were passers first, not simply running backs who could throw. Kelly has likened his quarterbacks to point guards in basketball who will run the offense smoothly and efficiently.

It is extremely enticing to imagine incoming 4-star quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson running the Blur. A former receiver, he is currently on the path to lead his high school to a Nevada state title in his first and only season as a starting quarterback. Thompson-Robinson has not wavered his UCLA committment, and UCLA fans hope it stays that way.

But we would be remiss to not give Devon Modster his due as the potential starting quarterback next season. Modster is a dual-threat quarterback of his own who is far more agile than even Josh Rosen. He also throws a really pretty deep ball, and that kind of arm strength cannot be disposed of so easily. Modster may not be as accurate as Josh Rosen (and really, who is?), but he was a 4-star recruit for a reason who should not be overlooked just yet.

Charles Fischer of has a great series of tutorial videos on the Chip Kelly Oregon offense here. I cannot recommend them enough to learn about the basic tenets of the Blur offense. Here he explains the inside zone run, the foundational component of any Chip Kelly-influenced offense.

In his press conference, Kelly noted that the game has changed since he was head coach at Oregon, and that his kind of offense has become widespread across all levels of football. He won’t catch the Pac-12 off guard like he did a decade ago, but it is undeniable that Kelly is still massively influential and will still look to run the ball more than most non-triple option teams.

There are many questions for Kelly to answer about his offense and whether he can adapt as the game has since he left college. He famously flamed out in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers after his offenses became predictable, boring and easily schemed against.

It also remains to be seen how Kelly will staff his defense. Kelly’s defenses at Oregon were fast and always underrated, but Nick Allioti was a fine defensive coordinator who is now since retired. He’ll need to hire someone who can keep up with his offense in contrast to how UCLA’s defense under Tom Bradley this season faltered and didn’t keep up with the pace of the offense.

The concerns are legitimate. Will he jump back to the NFL as soon as someone comes calling? How will re-adapt to the college football environment of recruiting, glad-handing with donors and doing the little things outside of football to build a program that he famously disliked?

We will get questions to those answers soon. But for now, UCLA fans can revel in arguably the program’s most successful coaching hire, at least on paper. The table is set for Kelly. He has the backing of an administration that will pay when needed, sparkling new facilities and is in the middle of one of the most fertile recruiting grounds around.

Plus, the famously mysterious Kelly can live in anonymity in Los Angeles as the head coach of one of ten-plus majorly covered teams here. People in Manhattan Beach or Sherman Oaks or wherever he decides to live will be too busy enjoying the LA life to give Kelly problems.

But if he wins big, he won’t be anonymous for too much longer.